When you decide to buy bare land to build an off-grid home, you’re literally starting with a blank slate- there is so much to do! It can be overwhelming to know where to start. We had to pick and choose what to work on first, even when it seemed that we needed it all. Of all things, we realized that we wanted our septic system installed by a contractor ASAP.
When we were preparing for our move to our bare land, we had an idea and a rough plan of how things would go once we arrived. We tried to prioritize as best as possible when it seemed that most everything was critical. After weighing the pros and cons of various temporary living situations such as renting an apartment, living in a yurt or buying a travel trailer, we settled on a 19’ travel trailer as that would be the most affordable as well as something that was self-contained in terms of power, water and septic.
As we had our RV that held up to 18 gallons each of black and gray water, we figured that we would be set for a while in terms of septic. We thought we could really ignore the issue with this “band-aid fix” and focus on more important things such as building our timber frame barn.
After we made it past the one-month mark living on our land, we realized that we needed to move the installation of a septic system to the top of the priority list. Not only that, but we wanted to hire a contractor to do it despite trying to do everything by ourselves with as little money as possible. We also decided to get a septic permit (click here to learn all about our permitting process + percolation test).
This decision may come as a shock to folks reading this blog and we don’t feel the need to defend ourselves per se, but we thought we’d share the thought process for others that are deciding whether or not to install a traditional septic system and whether or not to do it themselves or hire a contractor.
Below are the reasons why we moved our septic system up the priority list, why we got a permit and why we chose to not do it ourselves.
Romantics vs. Reality
Many people embark on this type of journey because they like how “romantic” it is. How romantic is it to say that you built 100% of your home from scratch with blood, sweat and tears? It’s pretty romantic to some!
That said, we personally aren’t trying to be superheroes. We know our strengths and weaknesses. While we do want to do the majority of things for ourselves (for education, personal satisfaction and financial reasons), we are well aware that we could easily get in over our heads.
With a journey like this, we’ve already stressed how important it is to start small and start with what you’re comfortable with (more or less… obviously this journey is a huge jump from what we’re accustomed to!). We simply can’t do it all, especially if we want to get it all done in a reasonable amount of time. We can’t run before we can crawl and we’re still learning how to crawl with this lifestyle.
We do want to install our next septic system, but for reasons mentioned next, we thought that we should just get it done ASAP by professionals.
Why We Got a Permit
If you have been following this blog, then you know that we were really on the fence on whether or not to get a septic permit. We went into the state health department to inquire what the logical reason was to get a permit and the best answer they had was simply “well, it’s illegal if you don’t” which isn’t an educated answer in our opinion.
We won’t go TOO much into the permit issue but we’ll just share a few things.
- Septic permits are public record: This is one thing that we realized, and it can be really handy to know the history of not only the septic systems on your property, but on neighboring properties as well. If you drilled a well too close to an unknown, unpermitted septic system, I’d bet that you’d be pretty unhappy! If a property is bought and sold a couple times, there’s a chance that there could be an unknown septic system on it. So while we hate the idea of a permit, we do see the good in this type of information being public as you do have the potential to pollute property and health other than your own.
- Many licensed contractors won’t install without a permit: Another thing note is that our contractor of choice wouldn’t install a septic system without a permit, and we were fairly confident that we didn’t want to install it on our own on such a short time frame.
- Advice from our inspector was helpful and saved us headaches: While we still don’t agree with the permit, we did appreciate the advice and feedback from our inspector during our percolation test. She helped us to understand setbacks, sizing, soil composition and more. If it weren’t for her help, we likely would have ended up installing the septic system at the base of our hill and due to runoff, that could have resulted in a failed septic system. That advice alone was worth the cost of the permit. We also shared with her our short and long-term plans and she was able to work with us on various options.
Our Time Frame & Rapidly-Approaching Winter
In our neck of the woods, winter is rapidly approaching. It is early November and any day now we should see our first snow sprinkle in the forecast. It’s almost pitch black by 5pm and nighttime temperatures are already hitting below freezing. We have so much to do before winter strikes in full-force such as finishing our hot tub deck, collecting firewood and winterizing our trailer.
Getting in our septic before winter is important to us as we really don’t want to move the trailer on icy roads or in poor weather. No part of that sounds enjoyable.
Also, winterizing our trailer will likely include insulating with hay bales, building some sort of enclosure with false walls, and it won’t be ideal to move the trailer every 4-5 days to dump the septic. We also may come into the trailer cold and want to take a longer, warm shower (longer than 10 seconds at least) which means that our gray water tank would fill up much quicker than in 4-5 days.
Some projects don’t make sense to get help on such as the building of our hot tub deck or the winterizing of our trailer. We can do that and would rather do that, but septic seems to be a logical thing to outsource.
Education is Priceless
Next, Jesse and I are huge fans of education. Information from people that know what they’re doing can be priceless. We’ve never installed a septic system before and we were interested in the idea of watching over the shoulders of seasoned installers so that we could take notes and ask questions about the process.
In doing this, we feel that we now have a fairly good understanding of at least our specific septic system and feel confident that we could design one in the future. We understand tank size, leach field size, placement, setbacks, elevation drop, components, materials and more. While we could research this on the internet, it does help to see it in person every step of the way.
Weighing the Risks
The next thing we realized is that in doing things yourself as a first-timer, there is always some amount of risk involved. Most of the time, we’re okay with the risk of doing things ourselves because the risks are minimal.
In the case of a septic system, if we made a mistake, we may not know for a year or two and the consequences could be catastrophic. If our newbie mistake resulted in a failed septic system, that could be thousands of dollars to fix or replace.
During our septic system installation, a large rock fell on the newly installed tank and cracked the thing. They had to go get a new tank (valued at $1,000+). This was a mistake that could have happened to anybody, and we’re somewhat happy that we weren’t the ones responsible! Even if you install a septic system yourself, there is still a significant material cost if things are done completely right.
The True Cost
That leads us to our next point of cost. Our septic system ended up costing us around $3,500 or so including both parts and labor. We priced out the components of the system and the components alone are fairly pricey. The labor is really a fairly minimal cost.
If we would have done the labor ourselves, this may have saved us $1,500 we’re guessing if everything went right. However, things rarely go right the first time, and one mistake such as breaking the tank upon installation, would have cost us $1,000+. An extra day in excavator fees would cost $300+. This means that if we made one mistake, it could end up costing more than it would to just have a professional install it, leaving us with no liability.
This all ties back to romantics, time and risk-assessment. When it comes time to installing your septic system, really consider all the factors.
Alternative Septic & Gray Water Solutions
Many people who are interested in an off-grid lifestyle are interested in alternative septic and gray water disposal systems, as are we. One reason we were hesitant to install a septic system immediately was because we wanted to entertain these alternative ideas such as composting.
Let’s be clear about one thing: Just because we installed a septic system doesn’t mean that we closed the doors on alternative systems down the road. We couldn’t be more excited to learn about composting and waste management in a way that really benefits our land. This just goes back to the fact that we aren’t superheroes and really need to tiptoe into this lifestyle; we simply don’t have time to do it all right now.
Developing an off-grid, sustainable property isn’t something that happens in a year. It’s something that takes multiple years if not a lifestyle to master. We all need to start somewhere.
To sum up this blog post, we are SO HAPPY that we have our septic system installed before the winter! Instead of taking 1.5 to 2 hours of our day every 4-5 days to empty our travel trailer, we only have to pull the tank levers open to dump and it takes 3 minutes tops! This allows us to spend our energy on winterizing our trailer, finishing our hot tub deck and building our barn.
If you are on, or will be embarking on, a similar journey, we hope this blog post helps you our if you have yet to get to the septic crossroads. All you can do is do your research, prioritize, do your best and walk confidently in the path you choose. Part of this journey is alleviating one headache at a time in the way that makes the most sense while also weighing the decision against your long-term goals.
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